The Prisons of Edward II’s London, Part Two – South of the River, Outside of the City


The King’s Bench Prison
This prison took its name from the King’s Bench Court in which cases of misdemeanors (as opposed to more serious felonies) were heard. Originally, the King’s Bench prison was as nomadic as the King’s Bench Court – as it went from borough to borough hearing cases. The prison would then be anywhere in the vicinity that could be made reasonably secure. From 1215 onwards, thanks to the Magna Carta, it had to remain in one place and so it was situated south of the river in Angel Place (off Borough High Street) in Southwark. It consisted of two houses and tended to house mainly debtors, although other types of criminal were also sent here.

It suffered from being burnt in the riots of 1381 and 1450 and was demolished in 1761. However a replacement prison had already been built in 1758 on a site nearby. By 1842, its name had been changed to the Queen’s Prison but this marked the steady decline of the place. Thirty years later it was closed and demolished – this time for good.

The Clink
Getting ‘thrown in the clink’ is slang for going to jail – but the term originally came from this prison south of the City of London. Like many of London’s prisons, it was built in the 12th century (1151 to be precise). It was situated next to Winchester Palace, the residence of the Bishop of Winchester (Southwark was the largest town in the Bishop of Winchester’s diocese and he owned much of the land there (1)). As such its original use was to hold those who disturbed the peace of the town. As this was a place notorious for its stews, prostitutes, inns and gambling dens, disturbing the peace was presumably a common occurrence.

Later, during Tudor times it was used to house non-conformists of both Catholic and Protestant faiths, who were often heavily manacled hand and foot. It has been postulated that the name ‘Clink’ actually came from the sound of the chains clanking as the prisoners moved around. This is quite possible as I have found no references to it being so-called in Edward’s time (it seems that the earliest recorded incidence is in 1530).

The prison fell out of general use just after the English Civil War and was destroyed by fire during the Gordon Riots of 1780. Today a museum detailing life in the prison stands on the site

The Marshalsea
The name of the Marshalsea prison has become famous mainly thanks to Charles Dickens who described it in great detail in his book Little Dorritt (his father had also been imprisoned there as a debtor). As such, in the 19th century it was famous as a debtors’ prison, but it had been in existence for many centuries before that.

Dickens’ Marshalsea was actually the second building of that name. The original was located a hundred yards or so away at what is now 161 Borough High Street in Southwark. There is no record that I know of concerning when it was built, but I did find an entry in the close rolls for 1303 ordering the release of a prisoner from the Marshalsea (2), so it was certainly in existence then.

The name comes from the court of the Marshalsea (for details of how the royal Marshalsea worked, look at this post) ruled over by the Earl Marshal. As well as being in charge of all of the horses and transport that the court needed, he was also responsible for maintaining discipline among the servants of the king and other persons attached to the royal household. Therefore it is most likely that the initial purpose of the Marshalsea prison was to hold those servants who had been accused of any crime either before trial or before sentencing. However, I am sure that the prison must have held other prisoners unconnected with the king’s household too.

In later years the Marshalsea became known largely as a debtors’ prison (yes, there seems to have been a lot of debtors in ‘later years’). Due to it’s dilapidated state, the old prison was closed in 1811 and a new prison bearing the same name was built 130 yards to the south. The new Marshalsea though, was to have a short life: it was closed in 1842 and mostly demolished (only a boundary wall now remains).

(1) The Bishop of Winchester’s land included the area of the stews and brothels and one of his duties was their licensing and regulation, from which, it must be assumed, he made a good bit of money. This why another term for the prostitutes of Southwark was ‘the Bishop of Winchester’s geese’.

(2) CCR, Vol5, 1302-1307, p57: “To Roger le Brabazon. Order to cause to be released Edmund le Taillur of Basingstok, imprisoned in the Marshalsea for the death of Richard de London”

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About Jules Frusher

With an MA in Creative and Critical Writing, I am passionate about the written word. The other great loves of my life are all things Medieval (especially Hugh le Despenser the Younger) and animal behaviour (especially canids and corvids). Give me a castle in the wilderness (with Broadband!) and I'll be happy!
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